by John Viril—
After the Kansas City Royals signed Jeremy Guthrie, GM Dayton Moore indicated he’s still looking to add starting pitching—likely through trade. Numerous reports have included Tampa Bay Ray’s right-hander Jeremy Hellickson as one of Kansas City’s possible targets. Many whispers mention 2012 silver-slugger DH Billy Butler as the possible return. The Royals should stay far far away from such a deal.
Hellickson is next season’s Jair Jurrjens: a collapse waiting to happen.
Yes, Hellickson won rookie of the year in 2011. Yes, Hellickson has posted sparkling ERAs his first two full seasons (2.95 and 3.13). Yes, he is only 25-years-old and is still under team control for four full seasons. Hellickson, however, is probably not nearly as good as his traditional numbers would suggest.
The doubts are centered around Hellickson’s weak ability to miss bats (K /9 of 6.31), the limited number of innings he lasts (averaged 5.7 innings per start in 2012), and his unusually low batting average on balls in play (career BABIP of .244, .240 as a starter).
Sabermetric analysis tends to focus on results completely under a pitcher’s control, namely HR rate, walk rate, and strikeout rate. With respect to batted balls in play (BABIP), sabermetric analysis presumes BABIPs significantly lower than .300 are likely due to good fortune until a starter pitches approximately 4 full seasons. After a pitcher maintains a low BABIP for such a substantial period of time, analysts then assume that the pitcher habitually induces weak contact.
On this basis, Hellickson doesn’t look very good. Hellickson’s career numbers are: K/9 6.13, BB/9 3.11, BABIP .244, and a HR/9 1.14. Fangraphs uses these numbers to calculate expected ERA based solely on factors a pitcher controls. On this basis, known as Adjusted Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP, which also adjusts for park factors and opponent strength), Hellickson posts a very mediocre 4.46—which is below league average.
To put Hellickson’s numbers in perspective, I searched the career numbers of every age 25 pitcher in baseball with a minimum 300 IP back to 1876—Jeremy Hellickson had the 10th lowest BABIP. Hellickson also had the lowest career strand rate of any age 25 starting pitcher in baseball history at 82.4%. Since both of these statistics depend on events largely outside a pitcher’s direct control (such as quality of their defensive team), these unusually favorable rates suggest Hellickson’s performance has included significant amounts of good luck.
Jeremy Hellickson’s career statistics bear an uncanny resemblance to last year’s pitching disaster Jair Jurrjens. Until last season, Atlanta Braves starter Jurrjens had compiled a seemingly impressive resume much like Hellickson. Jurrjens had an outstanding 50-33 career record and a 3.40 ERA through age 25. His sabermetric “peripherals”, however, were disturbing (and very Hellickson-like): a career K/9 of 6.15, a BB/9 of 3.10, a BABIP of .280 and an xFIP of 4.22. In 2012, Jurrjens imploded so badly that he staggered to a 6.89 ERA and the Braves demoted him to AA.
The reason I wouldn’t offer any real value for Hellickson is the risk that he’s more than due for a similar career regression.
Of course, some pitchers regularly defy xFIP projections based on their strikeout and walk rates. Mark Buerhle is the poster child for this phenomenon, with a relatively low career strikeout rate (5.11), low BABIP (.289) and a modest xFIP (4.22), but a solid career ERA of 3.82. Going back further in time, Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer’s peripheral numbers look remarkably like Hellickson’s through age 25 (K/9 5.93, BB/9 3.34, BABIP .247 and career ERA 2.80).
Yet, there are significant differences between Hellickson and Palmer. First of all, Palmer pitched considerably more innings by age 25 (1025.1 vs. 392.1), which means you could have reliably projected Palmer’s better-than-expected future performance using sabermetric theory. Further, Palmer pitched in an era where managers expected starters to complete far more games (average of 7.4 innings/start through age 25)—consequently one can reasonably assume Palmer’s low K rate was partially due to nursing his stuff to survive more innings. Finally, Palmer’s up to age 25 career took place during the dead-ball 70′s, and consequently had a HR/9 about half of Hellickson’s (0.68 to 1.24).
Of course, many amateur sabermeticians will simply assume a low BABIP is the result of “good luck”. While that assumption can hold up over the short-term, there really is more to a consistently low BABIP than variance. Steve Slowinski on fangraphs.com states that BABIP is make up of four components: variance, talent level, skill set, and defense. We’ve already discussed “variance” (e.g luck). Talent level addresses the fact that hitters will get better contact against a high-school pitcher than a major-league veteran. Skill set refers more to the a major-league pitcher’s particular strengths. For example, pitchers with high strikeout rates teFnd to also tend to induce weaker contact. While Hellickson does not miss many bats, hitters tend to put the ball in the air 62% of the time (which fall for hits less than ground balls). Hellickson also has a high popup rate (13.1% career rate), which is almost as good as a strikeout.
Finally, we come to defense. Much of Hellickson’s success is likely due to Tampa Bay’s outstanding fielding. While individual defensive metrics still have considerable problems, team defensive metrics are much more reliable. Last season, Tampa Bay ranked second on Baseball Prospectus’ DEF ratings while the Royals were no. 30 (third worst). This disparity was reflected by Tampa’s .277 team BABIP vs. .311 for Kansas City. Given that much of Hellickson’s success is due to the defensive team behind him, we could expect a substantial decline in performance in Kansas City.
The bottom line is that Hellickson’s worrisome peripheral numbers and lack of innings mean you cannot take his ERA numbers at face value. He may end up being a player that out-performs his peripherals; but, at this point in his career, you would be foolish to give up substantial value for him in trade.
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